With the start of the new year, many resolve to take better care of themselves by eating right and exercising more. But for a new generation of volunteers and philanthropists, the new year offers new opportunities to give back to others.
In our Jan. 9 issue, we share the stories of four young philanthropists who are using their time and talents to make a difference. We’ll have the second part of this series in our Jan. 23 issue.
And in the meantime, if you know someone who represents “The Giving Generation,” share their stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Niki Harris
Occupation: Accounting manager for Southern Nuclear, a division of Southern Company in Birmingham.
Education: Graduate of Opp High School and Birmingham-Southern College.
Organization: Chair and past president of the Rotaract Club of Birmingham.
For more information: Visit www.birminghamrotaract.com.
Niki Harris, Rotaract Club:
‘Find Something You Really Believe In’
By Keysha Drexel
It wasn’t long after she got her first job out of college that Niki Harris, the chair and past president of the Rotaract Club of Birmingham, got the feeling that something was missing in her life.
Harris was busy working to build her career in accounting and spent a lot of time traveling, which left her little time to do something that has always been important to her–community service.
“My first job after college was public accounting, and because I traveled so much, it wasn’t feasible for me to do community service work, and I kind of felt lost without it and felt like I should be doing more to give back,” said the 32-year-old accounting manager for Southern Nuclear, a division of Southern Company in Birmingham.
As a student at Opp High School and then at Birmingham-Southern College, Harris was involved in several different leadership clubs and did a lot of community service work, she said.
“When I changed careers, the first thing I started to do was look for ways that I could give back to the community,” she said. “Doing things for other people makes me feel good, and I’ve always thought that if you can use your skills to help other people, you should.”
Harris has been involved in Rotaract of Birmingham since 2009 and has served the organization as its treasurer, vice president and president. She said her friend Anthony Oni was the club’s past president and encouraged her to apply for the junior board when she was looking for ways to volunteer.
“Rotaract is about developing young leaders in our community and at the same time contributing to the community, and so I think it has been a good fit for me,” she said.
The Birmingham chapter of Rotaract, which is aligned with the Rotary Club of Birmingham, is the largest in the world and has operating since 2003. Its members are primarily young professionals, 22 to 30 years of age, who have proven records of leadership in college or their community, are regarded as rising stars at their place of employment and are interested in helping the Birmingham community.
Rotaract members come from more than 80 employers from across the Birmingham area and have participated in a number of service projects, including the donation of $1,000 to the Rotary International Foundation to assist in eradicating polio. The chapter has also partnered with the Rotary Club of Birmingham to aid with an international service project in Sri Lanka.
In August 2013, the Rotaract Club of Birmingham presented a check to Better Basics, a nonprofit literacy organization, to support the club’s service project, Ready 2 Read.
The Ready 2 Read program places a full reading library and reading buddy in every second grade classroom in Birmingham city schools, with the goal of inspiring more than 3,000 children each year to establish a daily habit of reading.
Rotaract volunteers help improve the literacy of these students and also act as role models to the children by being in the classroom twice a month. Since the program started in October 2007, Ready 2 Read has touched more than 18,000 students and added an estimated 9,800 collaborative reading hours.
This project, along with Rotaract’s School Supply Giveaway, helps fulfill Rotaract’s mission and dedication to literacy and education initiatives throughout the community, Harris said.
“I believe in everything that the club does, and I love being able to help make it a better organization,” she said.
Harris said being involved in Rotaract not only gives her the satisfaction of knowing she is helping others but has also been an educational experience for her.
“I tell people that I’ve gotten a free MBA because I’ve learned to do everything from run a board to plan budgets. It’s a unique experience in leadership because you’re running a club with 250-plus members,” she said.
Organizations like Rotaract are the keys to making the Birmingham area a great place to live and work for everyone, Harris said.
“For Birmingham to be able to continue to attract young professionals, we need to have these organizations, because community service is important to our generation. If young people are going to move here and we want them to stay here, we have to have ways to get them involved,” Harris said. “We have to sustain that momentum of everyone working together to make sure that Birmingham continues to become a better place.”
For those new to the Birmingham area or those looking for ways to use their skills to help others, Harris said she has some simple advice.
“Just raise your hand and say you’ll help. There are so many organizations in our area that need volunteers, and there are a million ways to get involved in making our city better,” she said.
Harris said for young professionals who are juggling careers and perhaps families, finding an organization or cause that they are passionate about is key.
“Talk to the leaders in your workplace or your friends and find something you really believe in and give it all you can,” she said. “If you’re helping the community around you, it’s a circle, and all that good will come back to you.”